nthposition online magazine

Jean Lurçat's museum and apotheosis, A tale of two Sickerts & The unmentionable

by Alexis Lykiard

[ poetry - april 02 ]

Jean Lurçat's museum and apotheosis

The work of Lurçat (1892-1966), according to the leaflet 'Biographical elements', handed out at Saint Laurent-les-Tours (Lot), "includes... a thousand compositions, wall tapestries, 700 paintings, 500 gouaches, some hundreds of ceramic designs, seventy engravings or lithographies" [sic]

Few artists have their very own castle. This vista would go
to the heads of ordinary mortals anyway:
you're giddy Seigneur of all you survey,
while the patched panorama far below
is an insignificant spread, even viewed
through these makeshift, spurious battlements.
Perhaps it's easy or tempting to be rude,
Just as - and no firm explanations follow -
Lurçat himself may well have been...

In my not-so-exalted view, he turned out best
as book illustrator, on a smaller scale:
His flair was for pattern. When grandiose he'd fail
to convince. Posed photos dutifully show
him with many more famous artist-friends,
sepia-printed Gide, Picasso, Léger and the rest.
A pity Lurçat himself wasn't deeply inspired.
Talent he had, Jacques-of-all-trades though
he now seems... It's of curious interest
how his overblown monument towers, stiffly rising

from the ambient plain to suggest both phallus and breast.
Who'd guess that the more generous region of Rabelais
unfolded nearby? Up here randy giants rate no mention,
their land of colossal candour too bold and too surprising...
Hard to divine what was Lurçat's intention,
yet our man also, if pseudonymously, sired
in the 1920s an erotic novel called Roger
(said not in forthright English, but the smoother Gallic way).
The book's graphic, stylish, witty: I wish he'd written more!
Only a shame he never owned up, became a weighty bore.

Wounded in World War One, maquisard in Round Two,
For all his bravery he somehow didn't break through
to any more stirring or timeless statements.
It cannot be said the lofty Lurçat ever shirks
a single major issue or important theme:
you get Wars, Apocalypse, the Bomb - the works,
like milestones along the way to wealth and fame.
These tapestry chairs seen here, paired drearily,
are replica Coronation Thrones once ordered by
Ethiopia's little monarch, Haile Selassie.

In an immaculate outhouse an unstoppable video
loops loud and proud about Lurçat, His Life & Works.
The French drone persists. On goes the whole high old show -
Portrait of the visionary Artist as a quasi-Saint.
Our creator's theme-park ends up cute, a suspect history:
great art boasts no pot of Message, but sure delight in paint.
Here the clean artefacts are all too well-displayed;
colours impose - finicky, overdone - turning absurd.
In a grand glass case reposes (let's just say: is laid)
the talisman, Lurçat's Academician's sword.

Fast forward past dubious Excalibur,
I'm charmed by frankness, so rare an interpreter.
This genuine young guide flashes a most inviting look,
pleased to confide (disarming smile) the bog may stink.
Ça pue là-dedans, she reveals, and it's true indeed...
After which, I can't bring myself to sign the Visitors' Book,
feeling I've seen far too much. If nowhere near enough
of the elusive muse. Teased by a fanciful erotic need,
I simply take my leave, take flight. Grateful to her
For fleeting pleasure unfulfilled, glimpsed in a wink.

 

A tale of two Sickerts

"I have always been a literary painter, like all the decent painters" - Sickert to Virginia Woolf
"American crime writer Patricia Cornwell is convinced she has solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity... She bought up 31 of Sickert's works... Cornwell actually tore up one Sickert canvas in her search for clues... According to Cornwell, the paintings contain clues to Sickert's double life." - Fortean Times, Feb 2002.

Every new century a connoisseur's relief
Expands as he sets foot in France again
Sauntering freely through this port
Capricious Sickert so well knew
Savouring its low-key sleazy nightlife.
Always the cafés, delicious quests
For fruits de mer, fishy stories, or a stew...
Whoever wanders past a capacious square
With its statue of the grand Duquesne,
Will skirt the ugly Eglise St Jacques, where
May be relished those drabber corners caught
Reliably on canvas by the great

Misfit, grim dauber of deadly Ennui.
Sickert the seedy and fastidious
Dandy was bawdier than Baudelaire,
Razor-sharp: highly influential he
Appears, these macabre days of stress, to us.
(Micawberish and always strapped for cash
all artists can appreciate his fate!)
drama, wit, disguises, W.S. liked -
sick humour suiting men of many tarts.
A chameleon addicted to music-halls.
Bold chancer, unexpected colourist.
Odd old buffer cutting a determined dash,

But keen to terminate unwelcome calls,
He was forced to work from photos, fast...
Most loath to settle his disputed bills,
Slippery recluse, he turned mysterious.
Hence, if not quite at home at St Peter's',
Sickert played Elderly Eccentric, psyched
out sad Denton Welsh. (That poor youth still
produced his own cunning verbal portrait
Afterwards - mordant, dark as anything
His vivid ancient model ever imagined.)
One recent essay posits a Royal foetus,
Imagines the handsome, wayward W.S.

As banished courtier doomed to years of exile
In Dieppe - no artist's proper life or style.
Debts are the surer bet; bastards; a French mistress -
These detained Sickert, who might well have faked
Some joke in vile taste, like Jack the Ripper
Secretly taking a last French leave...
Do clues, vestiges of guilt, litter the vague terrain
For truth-crazed researchers and the latterday tripper?
Dead giants exist, fit to entertain or receive
Comic homage from gay scribes. Living in vain,
paint shrewdly rendered. Doubtful myths need proving:
vanished echoes, gaslit nights, the past unvarnished.

 

The unmentionable

They owe it nothing yet they fear it - Lautréamont

As well described by Ducasse and John Donne,
there's a Presence whose bite is not quite fun.
Of that most intimate, undaunted parasite
none but the brave should ever make light.

Through these gigantic leaps that thrill the mind,
it lives like God - as teasing, hard to find.
Beyond good or evil, what best exists
deflates all smugness, proves itself, persists.

It prompts urgent debate, lends a fine sensual itch
to mataphysics and relationships, on which
the greatest lovers with their cats agree:
nothing defeats the occasional flea.